Monday, January 19, 2009

The culture needed

If the core of a team are its values then the mode of its execution must its culture.  The culture becomes the predictor of the end result.  For example, in most instances it is safe to say the culture of government is "oversight" and "bureaucracy" and that this culture is also not one of innovation.  When you think of Apple you might come to the conclusion of "innovation".  In many of my past lives I have had the fortune and misfortune of being inside an organizational culture.  

When I am given the helm of a team, a department or a division, I spend a great deal of time orienting myself into their existing culture.  The process I use to do this will be written about at another time for it is quite involved.  This is where I find out if the team is focused on problem solving or problem identification --  is the team focused on solutions or just "order taking".  These discoveries led to actions that allow me to imprint a different vision if needed.  Sometimes the culture is fine and it is me who has to adjust.  This latter part is very important.  You must always ask yourself if you are part of the problem or the solution.  Self reflection is paramount.

The purpose of this post, like the other, is to aid the individual who is new to the management role and comes from the technical background.  One of the largest leaps that is required is to go from "being paid for what you do" to "being paid for what you get done".  This may sound easy but it is tough to step away from the technology and deal with the people and process issues to get the team motivated to complete projects and tasks.  Your personal currency is all you now have to complete these things.

What does all this have to do with "Culture"?  Well, in a nutshell, everything.  If your users/clients/stakeholders know how you and your team will come up with solutions and you adhere to your values then there is an expected outcome.  If you build a culture of "get it done" with respectful values then good things happen.  If you build a culture of oversight, governance, process and your values are self serving and protective you will find the user environment has found very creative ways around your team.  This is quickly identified in those organizations that have "death by spreadsheet and/or MS access".  A typical red flag that the IT Culture is not working for the larger context.

So what does the above graphic say of the culture I embrace?  I will attempt to explain.


This is the starting point for me and the team.  We do not live in a lab were everything is controlled and we have unlimited funds.  When a problem or what I call an opportunity presents itself, look to other options.  This is how technology gets used in places that it was NOT designed for.  It is 2am and a critical printer is down and there is another slower printer somewhere else.  Then move the job there, do not get hung up on the drama of the user complaining about the speed.  Slow is better then stopped.  In the programming world, use alternate techniques that exploit your environment to the fullest and stop chasing the latest and greatest.  That only leads to confusion and distraction.  Yes, the computer science guys cringe at this one but lest be real.  Boiling the ocean of the possible for a report or query that gets run once a year is not the best use of your human and technical resources.  Improvise is used for that resourceful group that can get creative in a pragmatic way.  This is not to support not standards thinking but rather thinking on your feet.  This goes hand in hand with Courage to act.  For those of us old enough the phase "MacGyver it" resonates as a key element of improvise.  To the younger crowd the phrase "duct tape and binder twine" resonates.  

The element of Improvise promotes creative thinking, solutions centric thinking and a "can do" attitude when improvisation is supported and more importantly promoted.   The message being received by your stakeholders will be one that is positive and collaborative.  Even with our standards, oversight and process we can still be nimble and relevant to the organization.

Honestly, this is the one that I find the Information Technology group struggles with the most.  For a group of individuals that inflict as much change (read pain) as we do, we are the worst at adaptation.  Once we find something that works or has given us success we become the immovable force.  We have more baggage and hangups then the dysfunctional celebrities we mock.  

The adaptation step is one where you assess you role, position and meaning to the larger organization.  Information Technology by its very nature is a service industry.  So who are you servicing.?  If you are in a technology company with lots of engineers then go nuts with the acronym soup.  They will love ya.  However, the vast majority of our members work for real businesses with real issues and little to no appreciation of what Technology can do for them.  Get over yourself and start to educate as you communicate.  If your company is capital constrained then look to operational solutions.  If cash is easy to find but human resources are low then look to those solutions that make your department self sufficient and outsource those elements you do not need to know or do not have the hands for.  Never outsource your competitive  advantage or business knowledge.  This becomes a dangerous game.  Other posts will speak directly to Outsourcing for it is quite involved and has many real positives.  If your team is not very creative then you need to draw outside help to get those things done.  You need to appreciate the stripes on the zebras that are your team.  You are the leader of a group inside a larger group.  You will need to adapt to both internal (your team) and external forces.  Resistance and steadfast has their place.  Observe and act accordingly.  I was once told by a mentor, "you have two eyes, two ears and one mouth ----- use them accordingly".  By listening to this advice the level, and depth of adaption will be known.

If you believe the above two elements then the third element of Overcome is a natural outcome.  This means, do not lead your team through the rear view mirror.  Look forward and put in solutions reflective of what is NOT what was.  I have found, regardless of how bad a system or infrastructure is, people believed it was the right thing to do at that time.  It may have been done out of ignorance or arrogance but rarely I have found it was done out of malice.  This is important to understand.  Sometimes, you have to come forward and say redo it.

By looking at what is and adapting to the reality of what you have at your disposal and being creative in your solutions you will be able to solve (overcome) the real issues and provide real value back to the organization.

Another way of looking at this is "do you want to be right or do what is right".  Doing the right things now, for the right reasons is overcoming the obstacle and not being stopped by it.  Do not buy into "the sky is failing" syndrome.  Deal with it, respectfully, get all the facts, come up with options and implement the solutions and you would be amazed at how blue the sky really is. 

We work in an industry that rarely informs us the good things we do.  We are inundated with negative issues all day.  It is our job and our primary goal to deal with these issues and provide solutions, interfaces, experiences and infrastructure that solves the real issues and not the symptoms.  Always ask yourself, would you use the solution provided?  If it is not a resonating "YES" then why did you implement it or why are you implementing it?  


  1. Again, wonderfully written.

    Minor the first sentence the last four words..."must is its end" contain aminor slip. I believe "is" should be "be." Then, it is pretty much perfect.

  2. Very encompassing post. One comment as a side line though;

    Culture is sometimes a by-product of direction/leadership or lack of.

    Take Toyota for example. Through a rigid framework of communication, constant improvement and strategic direction they are successful. To be a part of Toyota you embrace their culture - but which came first the success or the culture?

    Government or government agencies are weighed down by lack of clear direction and perhaps over communication of ideals that are not the end goal - a culture also exists here but looks like a result in place of a plan.

  3. Success and/or failures are a result of actions. Inaction is considered an action. These actions are framed and performed as it relates to the culture. Culture shapes action.

    So in this case Culture predicts action. Previous responses to actions may alter future culture. For example, if your actions caused harm you may have more checkpoints and oversight in future actions. Lack of apparent Government Direction can be linked to this type of oversight culture. The end state may be clear but there is uncertainty on how to get there. Overburdened cultures will not foster strong leaders but will breed strong managers. There is a big difference between the two.